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In Spite of Herself

We Were Promised Spotlights by Lindsay Sproul (Penguin Random House)

Lindsay Sproul’s debut novel, We Were Promised Spotlights, will no doubt resonate with readers who are especially interested in LGBT coming-of-age stories, but what makes this book stand out is the quality of the prose, the well-drawn, complex characters, and the compelling insights into the limited life choices available for so many American teens. Though the title is somewhat awkward, the lament “We were promised spotlights accurately conveys the yearning and disillusionment that pervades the story.

Taylor Garland, the narrator of We Were Promised Spotlights is not the typical YA heroine. She’s prom-queen beautiful, and in spite of being mean—or perhaps because of it—she’s the leader of her clique of friends, and the star of her school. But what her classmates don’t know is that she’s in love with her best friend, Susan. Taylor obfuscates the fact that she’s lesbian by cruelly outing another girl. She’s also the only child of a downtrodden single mother—once high school prom queen herself—and fantasizes that her unknown father is in fact a famous actor her mother once had a fling with. She may manage to have clothes with the right labels, but the house she lives in isn’t even winterized. What Sproul captures so well is the poignant lament of so many teenagers—whatever their sexual preferences—that they are misunderstood. Taylor says of her mother, “The magnitude of what she didn’t understand was so big that I couldn’t say anything.”

Set in the fictional town of Hopuonk, along the Massachusetts South Shore, this novel is the story of the year-round working-class coastal community as well as the story of the teenagers whose lives are mired there. Next door to the affluent town of Duxbury, Hopuonk, in contrast, can claim only an impoverished future. Yes, there’s a beach for teenagers to hang out on, but unplanned pregnancies, STDs, alcoholism, infidelity, and child abuse persist.    

Taylor Garland is a character who even in her own appraisal is not endearing, and whether or not the reader feels her nastiness is justified they’ll find themselves drawn into her story because of the brittle authenticity of her voice. Taylor may have created a successful façade to shield herself from her peer group knowing and judging her, but she’s painfully honest with the reader. She reveals not just her most intimate secrets but her agonized thought process. Self-absorption is a common feature of female narrators in YA fiction, but Taylor’s interior life is far more complex than most. There’s a raw honesty to the narrative, and we may end up caring about her, almost in spite of herself. Unlikeable characters in fiction are so often more memorable than likeable ones.    

Although we’re informed that Taylor is an academic failure—she’s allowed to walk across the stage at commencement, but will have to pass summer school classes before she’s be awarded her actual diploma—her intelligence crackles. Her astute (often humorous) perceptions of her surroundings and her society make it clear that she deserves something richer than the future she’s been told is the best she can aspire to.

Taylor observes things keenly, and her choice of descriptive details makes one imagine she has the makings of a writer. She describes Brad, her boyfriend, as having “small, delicate hands, and womanish lips.” Later in the novel, when they’ve gone their separate ways, she uses an artist’s imagery to bring the scene to life. “As he walked away, I thought he looked so small, and in the wet salty air, the smear of his red coat was like a painting.” If Sproul has denied her narrator qualities that would make her “likeable,” she has, in recompense, endowed her with the ability to sculpt some beautiful prose. For instance, the first time Taylor hangs out alone with Brad, after she’s resigned herself to having sex with him, she describes her feelings this way: “A moment passed, and in that moment, I imagined myself without skin, without a body, as only a spine with wings attached, bleached white, beating above the clouds. If that were true, I not be Taylor Garland. My name would be made of syllables only the wind could pronounce.” And later, “In kindergarten, when the teacher asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up, I said, 'A falcon.' I wanted to fly, to beat gravity, so that it didn’t own me.” 

We Were Promised Spotlights is set in 1999, earlier than the target reader was born. The fact that the story is set twenty-one years ago, before technology changed the landscape, enables the author to explore the relationships in the novel with its characters intensely face-to-face, rather than having their confrontations obscured in text messages and emails. When Susan rejects her after their one sexual encounter, claiming “I don’t remember anything,” Taylor drives to her house, but isn’t allowed in. “I stood outside their house staring into their living room until I couldn’t feel my hands anymore. We’d sat on that couch together a million times, watching romantic comedies and sometimes the news, but only if it was juicy. I would have done anything to sit next to her again in the permanently indented spot where the springs gave in from too much use, to feel her body lean into mine, her head on my shoulder. I wanted to smell her. I wanted to be anyone else in the world besides myself.” 

Placing the novel in the past rather than the present is more than a clever device to enable the plot. The homophobia exposed in the story seems balder and crueler without the false distancing of smart phones and text messaging, and it reminds us that in high schools in many parts of the country acceptance of classmates’ differences hasn’t evolved as one would hope all these years later. And not just in high schools, either. Which is, no doubt, one of the major points the author was striving for. Taylor may feel she is alone, but, alas, we know better.


CORINNE DEMAS is the author of two collections of short stories, five novels, a memoir, a collection of poetry, two plays, and numerous books for children. She is Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College and a fiction editor of the Massachusetts Review. 

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